Doctor Who at 50

As BFI Southbank begins a year-long celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, with monthly events celebrating the many incarnations of the Doctor, season co-curator Justin Johnson reveals the challenges of doing justice to ‘the greatest TV show in the world’.

Justin Johnson
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Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in Doctor Who (2005-)

Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in Doctor Who (2005-)

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan for as long as I can remember and have vivid memories of the joy of opening a packet of Doctor Who-themed Weetabix (to collect the stand-up figures) and the nervous excitement of nipping behind the sofa to watch the climax of ‘The Seeds of Doom’ (1976).

People express their appreciation of films and television shows in different ways. For me, buying the DVD or reading a book has been enough (although I do confess to owning the odd action figure or two), but for others it can be a full-time occupation involving web forums, rooms full of merchandise and attending conventions.

Having resisted the latter pleasures, nothing could have prepared me for the amount of interest generated as a result of my co-curating (with Dick Fiddy) the BFI’s celebration of 50 years of the Time Lord’s travels. The phone rings off the hook and the emails ping relentlessly as people make suggestions, give advice and sometimes make demands about what we need to be doing to ensure that we act in the fans’ best interests.

Walter Fitzgerald, Giles Block, Wendy Padbury, Felicity Gibson and Arthur Cox in 'The Dominators' (1968)

Walter Fitzgerald, Giles Block, Wendy Padbury, Felicity Gibson and Arthur Cox in 'The Dominators' (1968)

What began as a small nod to the greatest TV show in the world has turned into a major celebration. If only we had 20,000 seats rather than our 450. And, despite cries to repeat them, how could we ever get the same guests on the same stage and under the same roof again?

We’ll be saluting a different Doctor each month from now till the end of the year. With 11 television incarnations and one on film, it makes a full 12-month cycle.

We approached William Hartnell with some trepidation. Would we find guests who are still able to talk about something that they worked on 50 years ago, and would audiences come along to the early Doctors? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’ on both counts. So, with help from the BBC (who we are working in partnership with and who have been amazing), some uber-fans and the good old internet, we’ve tracked down a bumper crop to start us off.

Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, Richard Hurndall and Peter Davison

Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, Richard Hurndall and Peter Davison

With the original plan of four or five guests on stage per month already discarded for January, when we’ll welcome nine guests, we have an amazing event lined up. Our huge thanks go to those people giving up their time and travelling from different parts of the UK to be with us to share their memories of a show they worked on back in 1963.

We’ve made public the programme for the first three months: ‘An Unearthly Child’ (1963) on 12 January, ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ (1967) on 9 February and the colour-restored ‘The Mind of Evil’ (1971) on 10 March. We did have a list of all stories drawn up at the end of last year but I’m so glad we haven’t published it as it is constantly changing and for lots of different reasons.

I can’t even reveal the fourth instalment yet, but for those of you hoping for an exclusive, I’m prepared to share our story choice for Paul McGann’s Doctor

Paul McGann’s only appearance as the Doctor, in the 1996 TV film Doctor Who

Paul McGann’s only appearance as the Doctor, in the 1996 TV film Doctor Who

Wish lists for guests in future months are being drawn up, but we don’t have contact details for everyone so do get in touch if you want to suggest someone who would fit in well with a particular month and if you have a contact for them that we could use.

It’s going to be a difficult job finding something that will please everyone, especially as we are very conscious of the difference between the long-standing fans, people who appreciate the show and new audiences who have only seen it since the new look from 2005 onwards.

For that reason, we won’t be assuming that everyone watching will know everything about the show. We really want these events to be about introducing people to new material as much as it is about serving the interests of an audience who already knows every last frame, monster and sound effect by heart.

I really hope that those of you who are joining us on our 50-year journey through time and space will enjoy the ride and we look forward to playing our role as the countdown continues to 23 November 2013, when the show celebrates its official birthday.

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